Formats Unpacked: Superbowl Ads

How the most hyped ad event of the year can still, sometimes, cut through

Hi All,

It only occurred to me this week that we’ve never thought about ads as formats for unpacking. I mentioned this on our Storythings Slack channel and within 30 minutes this brilliant piece arrived.

It was written by my co-director and Storythings founder, Matt Locke who knows his way around this thing. Matt has written a handful of Formats Unpacked in the past, including The Singles Chart, Grand Designs and The World According to Jeff Goldblum.

Over to Matt…

What’s the format?

Even though we are watching more and more TV on demand, there are still a few genres that make a lot more sense live, most of all sports. The Superbowl is one of the last genuinely shared live TV experiences in the US, and it has always been about more than just the game itself. Starting in the 70s, but in particular, since Apple’s breakthrough Ridley Scott-directed ‘1984’ ad, the Superbowl has been a moment for major US brands (and their advertising agencies) to showcase their creativity, their values, and most importantly, their budgets.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Since 1984, the Superbowl ads have almost become an event in themselves, analysed and discussed by culture and media blogs as much as sports blogs analyse the game itself. Although the event is revered by ad agencies as a rare opportunity to break out the budget and showcase their creativity, in truth, the ads often show how tired the tropes and trends of advertising are, year after year.

One of the most common tropes is for surprising or random celebrity appearances, like Timothee Chalamet playing the ‘other’ Scissorhand brother in Cadillac’s 2021 ad. This year, as pretty much every celebrity seemed to be shilling for NFTs or other forms of Crypto, FTX hired Larry David for a Superbowl commercial that probably sounded great on paper, but comes across as smug on screen.

Another trope is to go for earnestness or high moral ground. Superbowl ads are commonly seen in the industry as an opportunity to position brand values rather than a hard sell. The day of the game is a kind of secular holiday, the last leg of the US winter holiday triad after Thanksgiving and Christmas. The nation is united around the TV screen with friends and family, sharing snacks and gossip, but for some brands, this is the time to land a serious or earnest message, rather than celebrity jokes. It can work, if you tap into the warm and emotional feelings we have when we’re together with the people we love.

Budweiser’s 2015 ‘Lost Puppy’ commercial aimed straight for this fuzzy spot, using every emotional weapon in the ad industry’s arsenal. Macho cowboy protagonist with a soft spot for animals? Check! Adorable labrador puppy whose spirit for adventure leads him into trouble? Check! Third act resolution that shows how true friends come to you aid in time of trouble? Check! Over-wrought piano or ukelele cover version of a guilty pleasure classic pop track? Check! It borrows the same set of elements that John Lewis’s Christmas ads have used since their 2012 ‘The Journey’ spot.

When the story is actually good, earnest ads really hit the mark, even if it’s difficult to remember afterward what brand they were advertising. But when they miss, as Nationwide Insurance did with their very ill-judged ‘Boy’ Superbowl ad in 2015, it goes beyond warm drunken melancholy to outright horror. No amount of plinky-plonky indie cover versions and cute CGI critters can rescue an ad that is literally, and viscerally, about small children dying in accidents in their homes.

But the real magic in Superbowl ads is when somebody has the guts to buck the familiar tropes of celebrity, comedy, or melancholy. The impact of Apple’s 1984 ad was how unexpected it was, and how it stood out from the rest. The ambition of the production was like nothing else anybody had seen in a TV ad, and the message was clear - Apple is different from everybody else.

This year’s breakout Superbowl ad stood out by going in completely the opposite direction. Some years, the companies that dominate the Superbowl ads can tell you a lot about the current cultural moment. In the dot-com boom, having a Superbowl ad was a way of signaling to your customers (and more importantly, investors) that although your company was only a few years old, it deserved a place alongside giants like Pepsi, Cadillac or Doritos. This year, Crypto investment companies tried to have a similar breakout moment, mostly following FTX in using a tired celebrity format.

But Coinbase did something very different. They bought a whole minute of ad time, at a cost of around $14m, to show a QR code bouncing around the screen like the old ‘DVD player’ screensaver, whilst a scratchy electronic version of The Flying Lizard’s ‘Money’ played as a soundbed. It ends, perfectly, as the QR code hits the top right-hand corner of the screen, cutting to a glitchy bluescreen and the Coinbase URL in the font used in old video cameras.

I am no fan of the frenzied hype and borderline pyramid scams of crypto, but this ad is absolute genius. By looking nothing like any other ad, it makes you stop and stare, and it effortlessly picks up on a number of old and new cultural behaviours. First is QR codes, which were the perpetual bridesmaid of interactive tech until the pandemic, which gave them a new lease of life. Secondly, the throwback to the old DVD player screensaver is instantly recognisable, and the fact it ends with the image hitting the top corner is just perfect. But most importantly, asks the audience to do something. The ad doesn’t even try and sell you a brand story - it hijacks your attention, and gives you a link to something else. It was so successful that it broke the Coinbase site, with a reported 20m visits immediately after the ad.

As another powerful computer worked out back in the 1980s, Superbowl ads are a strange game. Sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

Similar formats

The Coinbase ad reminded me of the (supposedly outlawed) hype around ‘blipverts’ in the 1980s and 1990s. These ads would hijack your attention subliminally by inserting images or words for just a few frames, so you could barely recoginse them. There is no conclusive proof that they actually work, but companies like British fashion brand FCUK could be guaranteed at least a few column inches by including the word ‘SEX’ in a large font in the middle of an ad. Like the Coinbase ads, these blipverts relied on a new consumer behaviour enabled by new technology - in this case, pausing programmes recorded on a VHS tape.

Thanks Matt.

If you’ve not yet signed up to Matt’s occasional newsletter, How to Measure Ghosts, do it now. It looks at the way we measure attention as an intrinsic part of culture itself, an essential part of a feedback loop that connects artists, audiences and entrepreneurs.

We’re always looking for talented people to work with us at Storythings. Especially those of you who are obsessed with developing formats. Find out more about what we’re looking for, who we are and what roles are available right now.

Thanks for reading, liking and sharing. What ad format should we unpack next? Send me your thoughts or leave a comment below.

See you all next week,

Hugh

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